I have a passion for stories and history and Woodstock in Cape Town is loaded with both. I have been spending more and more time in the area, as we run a very fun and interesting walking tour in Woodstock that includes both Craft beer and Culture. With the world moving at the pace it is these days, it is sometimes a struggle to find information about the history of buildings and the people who built them,as everything seems to be changing overnight.
Our walking tour starts at The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, Cape Town, this place was and still is at the forefront of the regeneration of Woodstock. The precinct houses two of Cape Town’s most famous restaurants: The Potluck club and The Test Kitchen and many other creative endeavors.The question ,however, in my mind was not about the restaurants and food at the Biscuit mill but about the story behind the old building it was housed in and if it really was a Biscuit Mill at one time.
The story goes that the building was indeed a biscuit factory, built and owned by the Pyotts family. Does anyone remember Pyotts Biscuits? They were the makers of all of my favorite biscuits; Salticrax, Romany Creams and off course Iced Zoo. Today they’re all branded under the Bakers label and the Pyotts name has largely been forgotten.
Mr John Pyott arrived in Port Elizabeth from Scotland in 1882 and opened a grocery store and bakery in Princess Street, later he moved his business to Elizabeth Street and married Annie Mahaffey in 1884. Soon after Mr. Pyott married, the country was gripped by “gold fever” and he decided to go to the Witwatersrand to see if there was any future for him there. He traveled to Durban by boat and bought a horse to take him to the gold fields, and on the way, he came across another traveler on a cart with a lame horse. He offered the gentleman the use of his horse in return for a ride in the cart and this was accepted. John Pyotts ’companion turned out to be none other than the famous Paul Kruger ! When Pyott saw how rough life was on the gold fields he decided that it was no place for his wife and their small baby, and he returned to Port Elizabeth.
After returning from the goldfields, Mr Pyott moved his bakery to larger new premises in Broad Street where he concentrated on making biscuits, sweets, bread, jam and cakes. The importance of biscuits for sea travelers at that time cannot be overstated, and their importance as sustenance for soldiers and citizens alike during the World Wars that were to follow. In fact, during and after World War II flour was rationed to all except the biscuit manufacturers, but they were required to stop production of their choice lines in favor of nutrition
In 1905 Pyotts business had become so successful that he opened a sales office in Johannesburg, and in 1914 he built another factory in Cape Town , the building now known as The Old Biscuit Mill in Albert Road, Woodstock. In 1920 he opened another manufacturing plant in Durban. In 1946 when mass production machinery for biscuits became available, Pyott closed his factories in Cape Town and Durban and consolidated biscuit production in a brand-new factory he built in Port Elizabeth
John Pyott outwitted his competitors on at least three occasions. In 1965 ‘gypsy creams were a biscuit that most manufacturers produced, and Bakers’ Tuscany Creams was the market leader. However, Pyott, with help from Cadbury, brought out Romany Creams and that was the end of the competition. The history of Iced Zoo was not too dissimilar. Baker’s had a line called Playtime which had images of various toys glazed onto the biscuit. It was an expensive line because each biscuit required two glazing operations that could only be done by hand. But when Pyotts brought out their Iced Zoo line and designed a special machine for doing these two glazing operations, it soon took over the market as well. Pyotts bestselling line however was Salticrax which also became one of South Africa’s bestselling biscuits of all time.
However, John Pyott was not only known for his biscuits. He was also very active in public life and was highly respected around the country ,in 1899 Pyott was elected to the Port Elizabeth Town Council and in 1903 he was elected to the Cape Colonial Legislative Council which was an Upper House of Review of the Cape Parliament In 1904 he was a member of the elected committee of the council appointed to investigate and report on the state of the industries in the colony. He was an outspoken advocate of the tightening of imports in favor of local products, and for the boosting of local butter yields to benefit both local farmers and industries alike. In 1910 he represented the Eastern Cape for the Union of South Africa, and in 1923 he was elected to the Board of Directors of the SA Reserve Bank and served on the Board until his retirement in 1941.
Amazing how a gentleman who started out making biscuits could become so influential.